Paktika is a province of Afghanistan bordering Pakistan and to the east of Kandahar (where Canadians lead the NATO mission). It was the scene of a major Taliban defeat this week in a battle that may foreshadow a more active role by Pakistan in disrupting the easy passage of insurgents across the border.
Taliban forces, driven out of Kandahar in the fall, have been putting pressure on Paktika in operations that have not made the radar of the Western press until Friday.
In 2006, the governor of Pakita was killed by a suicide bomber; he was the highest ranking political figure to be murdered by the Taliban all year. During first week of January this year, a suicide bomber (the year's first) tried to drive his car into a NATO convoy in Paktika. Troops opened fire and he detonated his explosives, killing only himself. Last Monday, another suicide bomber blew himself up as two Afghan army vehicles passed by, again killing only himself.
This week U.S. reconnaissance units spotted a couple of hundred Taliban fighters massing in the neighbouring North Waziristan area of Pakistan, where power has been virtually ceded to Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. UAV's watched as a fleet of lorries drove the men to the border and into Paktika, Afghanistan, in two columns, accompanied by several pick-up trucks later found to be full of ammunition. Pakistani forces helped monitor the fighters.
Coalition forces waited until the columns had gone just over a mile into Afghanistan. Then they pounced. Apache helicopters decimated the columns with their missiles and machine guns (645 rounds per minute) and attack aircraft dropped 500 and 1000-pound bombs on the surprised Taliban fighters. The fighting, if you can call it that, lasted over 9 hours as helicopters tracked survivors of the ambush through the mountains as they tried to escape.
Pakistani forces had been alerted to the convoys and rained artillery and mortar fire on the trucks at the Afghanistan border. The estimate of the dead ranged from 150 (the initial estimate), to 130 (revised estimate) to 80 (Afghani defence ministry).
"We think that we killed at least 130 fighters from what we have been able to ascertain through visual recognition," said Lt Col Paul Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for US forces in Kabul, said in the usual convoluted military jargon. He said military officials lowered the estimate during the day after reports made at night under combat conditions were further evaluated.
The BBC reports that the bodies of 25 Pakistani guerillas killed in the ambush were brought back to North Waziristan for burial in their respective villages. Another 50 wounded men were in local hospitals.
Interrogation of the few prisoners taken will decide the debate over whether the insurgents were headed to attack a target or to stash the ammunition in preparation for the annual spring offensive which should start in about six weeks.
The fighting in Helmand province, immediately west of Kandahar, has been just as fierce, and immensely more significant to the success of the NATO mission of reconstruction in Afghanistan.
This week we heard the details of a pitched four-day series of running firefights which may be the most important coalition victory yet even if the Canadian press hasn't caught on.
The Battle for Kajaki Dam started New Year's Day. 150 British troops--- Royal Marine Commandos backed by two Apache helicopter gunships and a special forces reconnaissance team--- swept through Kajaki and the nearby neighbourhood of Kajaki Olya, house by house, driving out Taliban fighters who had set up a training camp in the area.
British military officials said the enemy dead could be measured in "dozens". An agency close to the insurgents, Arab Islamic Press, said the figure was close to 100. The only casualty to NATO forces was one soldier who was shot in the hand.
But in this case it isn't the casualty count that's important. It's the prize.
By clearing out Taliban fighters from the area, the Brits have opened the way to complete the Kajaki Dam project, the single most important infrastructure project in southern Afghanistan.
When it was operational, the dam was the biggest single source of electricity in all of Afghanistan. In 2003 its two turbines seized up. Temporary repairs kept the dam functioning at a fraction of its capacity. Seven months ago Taliban attacks completely halted the project to replace the generators and build new transmission lines.
When finished, the dam will provide power for 1.8 million people! At the same time it will triple the area that can be irrigated in Helmand province, which means local farmers can grow food instead of poppies which thrive in soil too dry to grow wheat. This would be an immense blow to drug dealers who fund the Taliban and supply fighters.
"We're going to have the contractors mobilized in February and we're going to finish the hydroelectric in 2007 -- by the end of this year," James Franckiewicz, director of USAID's Office of Infrastructure, Engineering, and Energy in Afghanistan, said . "I would guess [it will be] around the summer of 2009 before the transmission line and road construction is completed."
"There is about 190 kilometers of transmission line that we are going to build down there. And we're going to build about 90 kilometers of access road from the main regional ring road up to Kajaki Dam site. The upgrade of the hydro-electric plant and the transmission line will give a reliable electricity supply for both Lashkar-Gah and Kandahar and a few villages that will be services along the transmission line."
Security will be provided by a series of fortified roadblocks built by Royal Engineers this month.
But that's not all that's been going on in Helmand.
On Wednesday, Scots Marines, backed by Estonian and Danish troops, took on 50 Taliban fighters in houses and ditches near the town of Gereshk in their fiercest battle yet in Afghanistan. At times the fighters were only 40 yards apart.
As NATO forces built checkpoints to keep the Taliban away from Gereshk, at the request of local elders, they were ambushed. NATO troops stormed a compound and fought the insurgents house to house before the Taliban, in long flowing robes and black turbans, were routed with the help of two Harrier jump jets and a couple of thousand-pound bombs. Then they found what the insurgents were protecting---a bomb-making factory.
And on Thursday, in the largest pre-planned operation in Helmand since British troops got there, between 60 and 100 Taliban fighters were killed when NATO forces attacked two compounds in a village near the town of Garmsir in the middle of the night. Snipers pinned down the insurgents as Apache gunships went to work. Among the dead was a local Taliban commander.
Canadian forces expanded their presence west to the Jalai district of Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold. They met no resistance, which is the gold standard of the current mission, Operation Falcon's Summit. They've begun setting up checkpoints and clearing the roads of IED's.
One Canadian soldier was injured while on a regular patrol elsewhere in Kandahar. Master Cpl. Jody Mitic, a sniper with 1st Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, stepped on a landmine. He lost both his feet.
Villagers who left during the Canadian-led Operation Medusa last September have started returning to Kandahar by the hundreds, another sign that Taliban influence has been squeezed out. But its meant an increase in the need for humanitarian aid which remains slow in coming. (More on that in the analysis section.)
Virtually every newspaper in Canada recently carried the same pessimistic story about Afghanistan.
Afghanistan 'sliding into chaos'
Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette
Afghan mission 'doomed to fail'
Afghanistan headed for chaos
"... a new article in the prestigious international journal Foreign Affairs warned Afghanistan is "sliding into chaos" and that the NATO-led coalition is doomed to fail without a dramatic change in strategy.Author Barnett Rubin, a respected global authority on Afghanistan, says no amount of military sacrifice by NATO countries can produce dividends in Afghanistan without a massive, co-ordinated infusion of economic aid and a willingness to dismantle Taliban command centres in Pakistan..."
The article is basically a repeat of everything that's been written about Afghanistan in the past year. As such, it's significance is more in what it reveals of the inner biases of the mainstream press through what they report and what they don't.
The Press is determined to put a negative spin on every story out of Afghanistan. This is the Vietnam template.
Deep, deep, deep in the Foreign Affairs story was this nugget:
"In a telephone interview Friday, Rubin praised the "sacrifices" of Canadian troops and of diplomat Glyn Berry, whom he met before Berry was murdered by a Taliban bomb last year.
Rubin credits Canada's military for turning back "a frontal offensive by the Taliban" in Panjwaii last summer and for rescuing Afghanistan from what he considers "a tipping point."
"The insurgents (had) aimed to capture a district west of Kandahar, hoping to take that key city and precipitate a crisis in Kabul," he writes.
Why didn't we see headlines reading:
Canada Saved Afghanistan: Expert
We Did It, We Beat 'Em
NATO Tipped The Scales, Beat Back Terrorist Threat
Because that would suggest we're winning. That we can win. That Canada's role in Afghanistan is a good one.
And that would defeat everything the Press has tried to say since the start of the mission.
That theTaliban can't be defeated.
That Canada should pull out now.
That we can't win.
That it's wrong to stay.
Want more proof? Read this week's Maclean's magazine article headlined "Talking to the Taliban".
Reporter Adnan R. Khan says that Taliban fighters in Kandahar want a negotiated ceasefire with Canadian troops. Why?
Because they're demoralized and desparate. They've been outgunned and outfought by NATO forces. Their only fallback is booby traps and suicide attacks, which they admit are not enough to defeat NATO.
In other words...we're winning.
The Taliban has split. Some want a ceasefire, and maybe to give peace a chance. Other, hardliners, want to fight and die, win or lose. Even the ceasefire crowd can't be trusted, says Khan who talked to Taliban fighters in Kandahar and in Pakistan.
"For many, a ceasefire would only be temporary, a strategic cessation of hostilities to buy them time to rest, rearm, and re-strategize...The offer, as genuinely rooted as it is in the suffering of villagers in Panjwai, is clearly a ploy to gain time for Taliban fighters at a time when their resources are depleted."
The current campaign in Kandahar is to seize the moment and seduce the waverers over to the government side by offering them jobs as auxilliary policemen and turn them into the government's eyes and ears in remote villages.
Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor explained it best:
"As we clear village after village, we're putting police detachments in those villages, so there are Afghan police being placed through the whole zone. We're also moving the Afghan army into strongpoints, so this whole area is going to be dominated by the Afghan police and the Afghan army.
If there is a return in the spring of more Taliban into that area, we will know about them almost instantly, because we will have police and army in that area, and the Taliban will find it a lot more difficult penetrating that area than they did in the past."
The plan is to train and deploy 11,000 auxilliary policemen across the country in the next 12 months. They are being recruited from the villages where they will be stationed. They are given the most minimal training in weaponry. Every two weeks another 200 are put into the field.
Critics worry that the auxilliary police are really tribal militias in disguise. American trainers admit that they estimate one in 10 of the trainees are Taliban.
But NATO, especially the Canadian-led Kandahar forces, are willing to take a chance that this move will turn the tide.
We'll know better with the return of the annual spring offensive about six weeks from now.